General Zé Maria: The Puppet Master

One of the most powerful men in Angola is a septuagenarian soldier accustomed to operating in the shadows. A career military man whose name is feared across the nation. Yet outside Angola his role and legendary status is little known, and even less understood.

General António José Maria “Zé Maria” is an interesting character, to say the least. During the ‘War of National Liberation’ (against Portuguese colonial rule) he served in the colonial army. Yet since Independence he has been a key figure behind the scenes, prodigiously rooting out palace intrigues and imaginary coups d’état and purging suspected malcontents. His actions are purposefully directed to reinforcing and consolidating the position of the person who occupies the highest office in the land.

As President, José Eduardo dos Santos (familiarly known as Zedú) is the titular Commander-in- Chief. But it’s the man who has his ear, the man who has been his chief military adviser for nearly 40 years, the man who helped him gain power in September 1979 and retain it ever since, who has the most influence over all matters involving national security, and the defence of MPLA-ruled Angola.

Today the 72 year-old General Zé Maria occupies the position of Chief of Military Intelligence and Security Services, a title that belies the all-powerful remit assigned to him. He is the President’s Man par excellence – an enforcer who can order the dismissal or worse of any securocrat, regardless of rank or seniority. When he says “Jump!”, no one dares ask “How high?”, they just compete with each other to be the quickest and best.

With fingers in every pie, it’s no surprise to learn his fingerprints are also all over the Luanda Book Club case of the 17 young political dissidents found guilty on March 28 of preparing acts of rebellion and criminal association. Some of these young men had been at the forefront of demonstrations against what Angolans (and the world at large) increasingly describe as the dictatorship of José Eduardo dos Santos. It’s no coincidence that they were under surveillance by the Military Intelligence and Security Services. General Zé Maria had them in the crosshairs.

The journalist Domingos da Cruz is the man fingered as the leader of the conspiracy because he wrote the political manual the young men were discussing when they were arrested in a police raid. He has been sentenced to eight and a half years in prison. Dual Portuguese – Angolan national Luaty Beirão got five and a half years. The others received sentences between two and a half and four and a half years in what Amnesty International has described as a “kangaroo court”.

Behind the curtain, General Zé Maria was pulling the strings. Inside sources in Angola say he was the central figure commanding the operation and that the judge and prosecutor assigned to the case were acting under his orders in the execution of a strategy to stem the growing wave of protests against his President. The short term goal was to put an end to the street protests by the so-called revolutionaries, the ‘Revús’, who are demanding an end to what they call Angola’s kleptocratic tyranny.

The severity of the state’s attack on its critics was aimed at discouraging others from joining the cause. The arrests, trial and sentencing of citizens peacefully exercising their democratic rights has given the regime nine months in which to dial down the tension and ‘spin’ the news agenda in their favour, to make it appear that it’s the President who is magnanimously offering to step down voluntarily. The announcement of a (far from certain) abdication, relieves the pressure that had been building against him, particularly amongst the young and politically – aware, active on social media.

The power behind the throne

So who is this General? Insiders say he is both king maker and the power behind the throne in José Eduardo dos Santos’ ‘court’. They credit him with Dos Santo’s unlikely rise to power as the compromise candidate to lead the MPLA after Agostinho Neto’s premature death in 1979. Zé Maria’s Machiavellian manoeuvring includes arranging for his own ‘removal’ from the Presidential staff to distance him from the perception of involvement in the crackdowns on dissenters and the torture of political opponents.

The change of job title is for public consumption only. To this day General Zé Maria remains the President’s mentor and most trusted defender. For the sake of appearances, the President does not receive him in public audience and avoids contact with him. This gives Zé Maria absolute free rein to defend his President in any way he pleases. Their relationship goes back a long way, to a time when the MPLA tore itself apart in an internecine power struggle.

Site of one of the mass graves for the victims of the May 27, 1977 purges.

One of the darkest days in the history of modern Angola occurred on May 27, 1977 when factional divisions within the ruling MPLA broke out into open warfare, resulting in a murderous purge of the faction led by one Nito Alves (for whom one of the Luanda Book Club dissidents was named).

NIto Alves, Zé Van Dúnem, ‘Bakalof’ and ‘Monstro Imortal’ were leading members of a group accused of attempting a coup d’état against President Agostinho Neto. Due process went out of the window – there was no effort to investigate, gather substantive evidence or permit a trial or court martial to hear any arguments for the defence. A whisper of suspicion was enough to guarantee a bullet in the head. The numbers of those summarily executed may never be fully known but it traumatized the nation to such an extent that any dissent was impossible until recent years.

José Eduardo dos Santos led the Commission of Enquiry charged with verifying the facts after the May 27 massacres. His findings and report were notorious for being ‘inconclusive’ and finding no evidence of a coup attempt.  Dos Santos had counted some of the accused as friends and had himself taken part in meetings held by Nito Alves’s inner circle of conspirators. “He went in with his mouth shut and came out equally mute”, said one of the few surviving participants

At a stroke, the FAPLA Army (Peoples Armed Forces for the Liberation of Angola, FAPLA) had lost most of its General Staff and senior ranks. A lowly Captain Zé Maria suddenly found himself in charge of the reception and punishment of army officers suspected of involvement in the Nitista coup.

Major João Raul Domingos (Retired), was then a lieutenant in a Reconnaissance and Intelligence Company attached to the Chief of the General Staff of the FAPLA. In the upheaval, he came under the command of then-Captain Zé Maria, and was tasked with leading the mission of finding some of those suspected of involvement with the Nitista faction. By his account, those they captured were handed over into the custody of Zé Maria’s operation, based at the Defence Ministry. Prisoners were held in what was known as ‘the Noble Chamber’.

With tears in his eyes, João Raul Domingos recounts episodes from the mission: how they found one of Dos Santo’s closest friends, Kiferro, and ten of his comrades hiding out on a farm in Viana (now a suburb, but back then a village on the outskirts of the capital, Luanda). He says all eleven were shot dead, without trial.

He was also ordered to intercept and disarm a battalion of some 350 men, sent to Luanda in a convoy of trucks from their base in Ndalatando, on the initiative of a commander loyal to Agostinho Neto, to come to the aid of their President amid the confusion of news reports about an attempted coup. Not having official orders to be where they were, they were assumed to be Nitista supporters.

“My men disarmed them and took them to the Defence Ministry where they were forced to change into black shorts. Then they were taken to the Autódromo zone (the area near the racetrack) south of Luanda where, to a man, they were lined up and shot.”

HIs company was also ordered to lend assistance to Commander Margoso’s operation which ended with the surrender of Nito Alves himself. Alves was hiding out in a dugout in the Piri forest in his native province, Bengo. The FAPLA veteran recalls that the MPLA leadership had given orders to round up and shoot Nito Alves’s parents if he didn’t give himself up.

“People there would have protected him and he could have held out indefinitely. The lady who took food out to him, a Mrs Domingas, warned him of the threat against his parents and to save them, he handed himself in to Commander Margoso.

With his mission completed, João Raul Domingos unsuspectingly returned his BRDM 2 assault vehicle to his unit, located in the suburb of Cazenga, only to be told he was under arrest:
“Zé Maria ordered me and my crew arrested. An officer named Valdez disarmed us, made us remove our boots, and then transferred the whole crew to the Defence Ministry.”

“On arrival, we were ordered to take off our uniforms and were given black shorts to wear. Then they placed us in the ‘noble chamber’. By chance, I ended up right next to the door. Someone had tipped off ‘old man’ Margoso who came by to check. I shouted to him ‘Uncle! Zé Maria has had us detained’.”

Margoso was one of the older guerrilla veterans, a man who enjoyed President Neto’s trust and had been given the command of the 1st Region. He summoned Zé Maria immediately and right then and there demanded an explanation. “The ‘old man’ accused him of ordering people to be shot at random whereupon Zé Maria ordered the release of me and my crew. “They had narrowly escaped the first of Zé Maria’s purges.

The Brandy intrigue

It was September 28, 1979, two weeks after the death of independent Angola’s first President when he embarked on his second purge. Now promoted to Major, Zé Maria made an official complaint against high-ranking officers at the Defence Ministry. In a convoluted and extraordinary letter he accused the top brass of dishonouring the memory of Agostinho Neto during the officially-ordered period of mourning. The alleged insult? They had served a round of brandies at the end of a meeting. As the President’s Secretary for Military Affairs, Zé Maria demanded punishment for the alleged offenders.

It is worth reproducing portions of Zé Maria’s denunciation for clues to this ex-seminarian’s capacity for argument and his verbal diarrhoea in placing his adversaries in the line of fire.

“I hope no one is amused by the insulting irony which flows from this page, although in truth I am unconcerned, given that the sole insult is the one delivered to the much loved and respected Guide to the Angolan Revolution, Founder of the Nation and of the MPLA-Workers Party.”

“It is a fact that the still fresh corpse of our Commander in Chief had only just reached Luanda, this centre of decision-making but also of political salons and clandestine plots. And, and in accordance with the situation the Ministry of Defence and General Staff had decreed a precautionary control order (confinement to barracks), and a slight rise in the state of alert to combat readiness stage three (…) In spite of this, there was no curfew as a mark of respect, and I would say, none of the required piety of sons mourning the loss of their father. Instead, they broke out the (good) beers for lunchtime refreshment (an unprecedented act) and warmed their gullets with best quality brandy. I could bear witness to the delivery of six bottles, two of Napoleon Cognac and four of regular brandy, which by rights were destined for the use of the Secretary for Military Affairs.”

The Major then goes on to suggest three ways to describe the behaviours of the brandy drinkers:

“There are three possibilities:
.    (I)  They drank to attenuate the piercing pain felt by all Angolans, of whom the FAPLA are part, over the death of their Commander in Chief and architect of these same armed forces.
.    (II)  They drank to sedate their readiness to fight, given that the sleep inducing effect of the drug leads to lowered vigilance than that demanded by the circumstances.
.    (III)  They drank – and this borders the on base impossibility, a possibility that I am neither able nor want to believe – that they drank to celebrate the death of Agostinho Neto!? What harm had he ever done to the FAPLA?”
After many more paragraphs in this vein, be concludes: “In order to wash away such a profanity towards the venerable comrade President Agostinho Neto, we ask that the echo of our voice – so disgusted, hurt, scandalized and stigmatized by the lacerating pain – scale the heights of the Central Committee (of the MPLA) whence should come the just verdict to diminish the unspeakable injustice.”

In a final demonstration of his own purity, Zé Maria says that at an opportune moment he will “remit to the Ministry of Defense 6 bottles, untouched, of the precious, rare and aristocratic brandy”.

This overblown missive to report his “lacerating pain” was sent to 11 institutions, including the office of the Deputy Minister of the People’s Defence Organization and served to neutralize the upper echelons of the military, who were at that time, the most likely threat to the leadership of Jose Eduardo dos Santos.